Dr. Ken Osei Mensah is a Ghanaian Medical Laboratory Scientist with the
Department of Global Health Security, Graduate School of Public Health, Yonsei
University, Seoul- South Korea
The coronavirus pandemic has devasted societies and decimated world economies
within the space of 4 months. When the World Health organization (WHO) declared the
SARS-CoV-2 virus spread a global health emergency on January 20, many countries least
expected the outcome to be this devasting, but not South Korea.
As early as late January, the state health and safety apparatus of the country was in full swing. An infectious disease expert with the Korea center for Disease control (KCDC) is quoted by the
Reuters news agency to have said ‘we acted like an army’. Whatever the south Koreans
did, it seems to have worked. Whiles countries like Iran and Italy’s health care systems
crumble under the enormous influx of new corona virus cases, the epidemic curve seem
to have flatten somewhat in Korea.
As at March 23, 113 people have lost their lives in Korea compared to the 5476 in Italy, 1772 in Spain and 674 in France despite the fact that for the longest period in the life of this epidemic, South Korea was the most affected country outside mainland China. As cases in Ghana seem to surge gradually, there are basically two trajectories ahead, either we end up like South Korea or we end up like Iran and Italy. So, what did the Koreans do to change the tide? Laboratory testing.
The WHO Secretary General in declaring the COVID-19 a pandemic implores countries
to ‘Find, isolate, TEST and treat every case, and trace every contact’. Laboratory testing
is the key to stemming the spread of this virus. All countries that have flatten the curve
of this pandemic have rampantly tested all suspected cases, and the lead country in this
regard is South Korea.
South Korea had vastly expanded their capacity for testing at the height of the spread of the virus to between 12000-15000 test daily. Official sources estimate 316,664 cases had been tested in south Korea, the highest test per capita of any country as at March 20.
The Korea authorities innovative testing methods like drive through testing and phone
booth testing posts has dramatically reduced the occurrence of hospital setting spread
which characterized the Middle East Respiratory syndrome epidemic in Korea in 2015.
You could intimate the Koreans have had some experience with emerging infectious
diseases response over the years with SARS-CoV in 2003 and MERS in 2015, the more
reason we should learn from them. Why is testing so effective in controlling the spread of the virus?
Several COVID-19 infected persons will remain asymptomatic carriers or mildly
symptomatic and without testing will retain the potential to be super spreaders of the
virus to more vulnerable people. Testing people help identify infected people and they
can therefore be isolated and quarantined.
Extensive testing remains an essential tool in both the control of the virus but
importantly it gives a measure of the effectiveness of how other public health
interventions put in place are working.
As a country we need to invest heavily in the access to testing kits and also expand the
testing criteria to cover as many people as possible most importantly health care
workers. Fortunately for us as a country, we have abundance of the requisite human
resource capacity and competence in medical laboratory science.
Let us increase the availability of testing across all regions now that we have limited spread because the alternative of delay and tumultuous testing in the event of an upsurge in cases will cost lives. There are too many examples of countries with similar stories to not pay heed.